Football has often been compared with war, which is especially noticeable when it comes to terminology. Touchdown passes are called bombs, the linemen are "in the trenches", quarterbacks are "field generals", and defensive backs blitz the quarterback. But how much of a role has military action actually played on the gridiron?
I interviewed James W. Johnson, author of "The Wow Boys; A Coach, a Team, and a Turning Point In College Football," about the relationship between football and military terminology.
Q. In your book, you wrote that the new coach at Stanford in 1940, Clark Shaughnessy, had studied military tactics and employed them on the football field when he modernized the T formation. Can you tell us more about that?
A. His love of military strategy was a passion with him. He wrote several magazine articles in which he felt that the military and football were important to the nation’s strength. He said football was the closest approach to war that there was in sports. He said, "You mass men for a quick thrust here, you feint the enemy out of position. It’s a quickness, precision, cooperation, determination. They work together in both football and war."
Q. Who were his heroes in the military?
A. Shaughnessy was fond of quoting General Douglas MacArthur, who said that the training on the athletic field provided much of the courage, mental agility and physical development necessary for combat. But one military hero of Shaughnessy’s was one he didn’t tell anyone for many years after World War II. But he adapted some of his strategies to the football field in the late 1930s. He didn’t even tell his players where he got his ideas. That was because his hero was a Nazi general named Heinz Guderian, who revolutionized land warfare with the panzer-led blitzkrieg that brought about the fall of France. He was probably right not to glorify a Nazi general during a time of war against Germany.
Q. So how did Shaughnessy use Guderian’s tactics?
A. Guderian eliminated foot soldiers because they slowed tank attacks. Shaughnessy did away with most backfield blocking because it showed the explosive starts of ball carriers. Guderian often sent his forces on the flank to distract his enemies then sent tanks through the weakened front lines. Shaughnessy used flankers to draw defensive backs away from the center of the field allowing runner to cut back across the grain for big gains. Both use tactics to spread the defense and then to attack the weak spots.
Q. Any more heroes?
A. Yes, Shaughnessy also studied the tactics British viscount Montgomery used against the Germans at El Alamein. He said they were very similar to those of the football T formation. Montgomery used feints on the battlefield that were similar to the fullback counter in football. The counter play has the right halfback in motion while the fullback makes a false start to the left. The left half simultaneously plunges into the center. The quarterback fakes a handoff to the left half but then hands it off to the fullback, who turns back and slices between the left end and tackle.
Q. What did Shaughnessy mean when he said that football was a good training ground for the military?
A. Shaughnessy said team morale in war is the one single most important thing that can be developed in soldiers, and football with eleven players has to develop teamwork that brings players together for a single goal – to win the battle. He would say, "Morale ... is the willingness to ‘mix it’ and keep on struggling until you win. Self-sacrifice for an ideal, and objective. That’s what our boys have learned in their college game."
Q. How successful was Shaughnessy in employing that philosophy?
A. The best gauge, I think, was the fact that Shaughnessy took a team that had a dismal 1-7-1 record under the previous coach the year before and turned them into an undefeated Rose Bowl team with the modern T formation. The football coach Bill Walsh, who recently died, was often called "The Genius" because of the way he successfully transformed football with his West Coast offense. But Shaughnessy was "The Genius" of his time by restoring and updating the T formation. Within ten years, most major colleges across the country were using the T. And we still see some form of the T in the professional and college ranks today.